Learning mad persuasion skillz from Jesus and Gaga (a book review)

To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. So said WWE icon Rick Flair (who could probably teach a little bit about rhetoric). That’s kind of the logic underpinning Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady GagaRomm runs the website Rhetoric.com and applies his rhetorical skills on the Climate Progress blog.

While Romm doesn’t pay much attention to Cicero, he does offer a guide to eloquence based on looking at some of the most persuasive story tellers from the past and present. He reverse engineers the rules of persuasion from the world’s great orators – Jesus and Shakespeare, with a pretty cutting assessment of the communication techniques of modern politicians, and quite a sympathetic reading of Lady Gaga.

“If the Bible is the word of God, then rhetoric is God’s way of speaking. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling sixteenth-century handbook asserted that rhetoric makes the orator “the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.”

He suggests rhetoric isn’t much more than helping people to speak naturally in a way that understands what makes people tick.

“…from the very beginning, rhetoric teachers aimed to help orators speak more naturally, in a manner that as closely as possible matched the way people actually speak. Here is Aristotle discussing the importance of matching natural speaking: Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character…. To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory…. This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.

Ultimately it’s a book about how to tell a story that persuades – particularly an extended story. And this is where I reckon it’s incredibly powerful for preachers. If you’re not thinking about how your sermons relate to each other, and to your church’s vision, and to the way you do things – and you’re not tying those together with some sort of extended, coherent metaphor or narrative, you’re being less than effective as a persuasive communicator. And that, ultimately, is what we’re on about as Christians.

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” – 2 Cor 5:11

Romm gives some tips drawn from his pool of experts, summed up in this list:

1. Use short, simple words.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.

3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.

4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.

5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.

6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

I think most preachers have been taught 1 and 2, but it’s 4 and 5 that are key. I’d say you can even get away with not following 1 if your metaphor is powerful enough and infuses everything you say with a bit of life and verve.

Here. So you don’t have to buy the book (you should anyway). Is a bit of an expansion on some of these points.

Repetition and clarity

“Eloquence requires the repetition of words and phrases. Persuasion requires the repetition of slogans, sentences, and ideas.”

For Romm the key to repetition is something like sloganeering. You figure out the simplest and most punchy way to make a point. And you make it. Again. And again. And again. But you’ve got to aim not to bore your audience with the repetition – which means you’ve got to work hard at getting your weight behind the punch. He suggests the noble (and vastly underrated) chiasmus is a nice way to hammer home a blow. I quite like the idea of structuring speeches and sermons as something like a chiasmus.

“Perhaps the most elegant—and certainly one of the most popular—figures of repetition is chiasmus: words repeated in inverse order. Chiasmus is a great source of aphorisms. Mae West famously said, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Ray Bradbury advised writers, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. Chiasmus makes for a memorable tweet, since it is pithy and profound.”

Clarity isn’t just about short words. It’s about removing impediments to your message. It’s ground clearing so that your storytelling can stand out – so that your metaphor is given the context it needs in order to shine. But it isn’t even just about vocab. It’s about clarity of emotion and tone as well. Making sure the mood and thus, in a speech, the medium, is apt to the message.

“Clarity is rightly seen as one of the most important virtues of a speech. If our goal is to persuade people honestly, then we should be as clear as possible about what we are trying to say. Clarity is most important when we are trying to convince people with the facts, with logic. As we’ve seen, however, truly persuasive speech requires a simultaneous appeal to mind and heart, logic and emotion, especially if you are trying to penetrate and change someone’s worldview.”

Stories as metaphors

“Memorable storytelling, whether in life or politics, is built around the same figures of speech used by the master storytellers, the ancient bards—metaphor, foreshadowing, irony, and especially extended metaphor, which is what some, like the linguist George Lakoff, call a frame.”

Romm argues that metaphors speak to us because they speak to our brains. They give us something that appeals to how we’re wired – words that evoke pictures. Speeches that are just words might fire up one part of the brain, but when you get people to visualise something, and give them a memory hook – it’s like injecting steroids into their head. Strengthening your message.

“Metaphors are not just a pleasing figure of speech we use by chance. They reflect the very structure of our thinking and of our brain itself. Edward O. Wilson argued in his book Biophilia, “The brain depends upon elegance to compensate for its own small size and short lifetime.” As we evolved, the brain “was forced to rely on tricks to enlarge memory and speed computation.” Hence, the human mind “specializes on analogy and metaphor, on a sweeping together of chaotic sensory experience into workable categories labeled by words and stacked into hierarchies for quick recovery. Metaphors enhance our memories in at least two ways. First, they create another place in the brain for a word or phrase to reside. People remember words better when they have multiple ways to remember them, such as combining repetition and a rhyme (“Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint Doublemint Doublemint gum!”). In particular, metaphors create a visual aid to memory. Metaphor is “used for the sake of creating a vivid mental picture,” wrote the author of one of the rhetoric textbooks used to teach Elizabethan children.”

“Metaphors aid in memory a second way: They require the hearer or reader to think more, to light up more brain circuits, to figure out the connections and what they mean. As one study of “Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language” put it (in muddy jargon that no ad writer would use), “Effortfully processed information is more readily retrieved from memory than less effortfully processed information.”

It’s not just that metaphors are more memorable. Metaphors are also more compelling. Especially if they work at the level of providing a framework for people to think. Extended metaphors shape worldviews. They let us carry our stories across time and space. They help us link our stories together (a bit like Coca Cola’s “Liquid and Linked” approach to telling stories on social media)

“Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. It pumps the life blood into Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Political candidates with a strong extended metaphor have a long political life while those without one don’t have much of a pulse. Like the best figures, extended metaphors make ideas and phrases more memorable, expanding the vivid visual imagery painted by a single metaphor to create an entire mental mural for the audience. And like the best tropes, which “turn” the meaning of words, extended metaphors force you to think—and in a deeper way than most figures.”

This again, works because we think not just in metaphors, but in extended metaphors. Here’s how it works in politics. There’s not a huge jump to figuring out how we can make this work in preaching.

“Extended metaphors are essential to politics for several reasons. First, as we’ve seen, they are a key to great speechmaking. Second, we humans think with extended metaphors. So the best politicians naturally present themselves to fit our metaphors, linking those metaphors to their personal story, feeding the modern media’s growing interest in personalities and dramatic stories. Third, the best way to attack your opponent’s positive extended metaphor is to hit back with a negative extended metaphor. Put another way, rhetoric is the art of creating a persuasive story, the art of making—and unmaking—an emotional connection with voters.”

For preaching the issue isn’t so much conforming to the audience’s metaphor – it’s conforming the audience to a new worldview by the Gospel. Which comes packed with its own metaphors. So, for example, at Creek Road we link the Gospel, with our vision, with the way we do things using the metaphor of heart transformation. Being able to alter worldviews is vital for preaching – it’s a vital work of the Holy Spirit, who works through our preaching. But it’s an incredible challenge for us now – because we are both bombarded by tens of thousands of competing metaphors and advertising images every day (well, on the days you walk the aisles of a supermarket), and we are getting better and better at filtering out messages that we aren’t interested in.

“If you cannot change the public’s worldview, microcosm, paradigm, extended metaphor, or frame, then you cannot change how they perceive the facts. This is especially problematic in our time, a time when people can easily choose to watch only those media outlets that share their political views and thus pre-filter facts for them.”

One of the really nice things about Romm’s book, and one of the reasons it’s so readily applicable in a Christian context is that he values, rather than dismissing, the Christian tradition and its contribution to rhetoric. This isn’t a Christian book, but Romm uses Jesus as an example to back up many of these points, and acknowledges that Christianity brings its own inherent extended metaphor in the pages of Scripture.

“The systematic application of rhetoric is one of the few ways to create a worldview—what more profound paradigm is there in America than the Judeo-Christian ethic as created and sustained in the supreme rhetoric text, the Bible? In the beginning was the Word.”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.